Edited early 2016
Judged from an angle, and even most angles, Waltz with Bashir is a failure as a documentary. As a study in the 1982 Lebanon War or the long-brewing turmoil between Israel and Palestine, Ari Folmans’s attempt to recreate his lost memories of participating in the 1982 siege of Beirut is inconsequential. Add to this the fact that large portions of the film boil down to rote talking heads documentary conversations – par for the course in even the hackiest and adolescent of all documentaries – and you have a failure on your hands, right?
Yet it is precisely Waltz with Bashir’s inability to inform us about the Lebanon War, or to meaningfully expose to us the factual account of what Folman actually experienced in 1982 as a young, unpolished 19 year old soldier, that makes Waltz with Bashir so enlightening and challenging as a docu-drama experience. For Folman’s stated goal – to create the experience of his time in battle – is not his endpoint, nor even his channel, and it doesn’t take much consideration to realize it probably wasn’t his goal for very long anyway.
What Waltz with Bashir truly is, instead, is a cinematic reckoning with the futility of memory, to expose, essentially, how the human mind reacts to trauma with a peculiar combination of regression, denial, blunt force, and alienation to both obfuscate and enhance the experience of past events in the mind. In other words, it’s Folman’s In Search of Lost Time. Folman’s tone – diaphanous, numbing, poetically psychedelic and melancholy – comes alive in visualizations of his dreams, and the dreams of his friends who participated in conflict as well. A man is chased by hounds of hell emblazoned with piercing, sickly yellow eyes. A golden hue bathes three men – floating like phantoms in a limbo-like water – as noxious clouds of violence fill the air of a city that still lies at a distance even as it is pushing right up against them. Waltz is a deliberately acid-like, alienating film about the psychosis of war and the way the mind alienates the self from human experiences by rendering those experiences a combination of dream and nightmare.
A nightmare that comes out most fully in Folman’s style. The entire film, excepting slim margins of footage inserted almost as if a paltry and unnecessary reminder that the whole experience is grounded somewhat in reality, is presented to us in a quasi-rotoscoped style, wherein live-action interviews of fellow soldiers were then storyboarded into animations which were then cut-apart and reassembled together within shots. Folman was careful to leave slight room for floaty, fidgety warbles and hashed-out movements in the animation. The net effect is simultaneously intoxicating and pointedly obtuse – shots unfold slowly, but even within a stillness and stagnancy, characters attain a fuzzy, disquieting twitchiness not unlike representations of acid flashbacks, or a ghostly pantomime of reality assaulting you with its essential implosion of the fallacy of memory.
And the fallacy of the unmitigated objectivity of the cinematic image, which is why that closing moment of “real” footage is so disheartening in its own way, seemingly minor but undeniably major insofar as it reorients the imaginative terms of the film. Far be it from me to undermine Folman’s dexterous liquid suspension of memory and imagination – and I do mean liquid– but the conclusion has the air of solidifying everything into a binary of real and fiction that strangely evokes a journalist’s will to locate or document reality rather than produce or creatively explore knottier quagmires of truth and uncertainty. To the extent that the film’s finale answers the preceding film, concluding it with the period of unanswerable reality, it rather timidly and unfortunately reorients the terms of the film. What had been a serious investigation of memory, trauma, and imagination not simply as false slippage from an unimpeachable truth but as realities all their own becomes something of a simple fact of fiction classification. Film representation then codes as a conduit to a prefigured, now-lost-but-still-recoverable truth, scrubbing off the false veneer of the inaccurate animation that alienates us from truth, rather than an investigation of the nature of reality altogether, wherein the mutable uncertainty of the animation adds layers to truth.
Still, taken as a representation, the frequently phenomenal animation serves a number of purposes for Folman beyond merely exposing the trauma that the mind can never truly recreate reality, casting a pall over the experience by recreating the war as an alien fever dream of dissassembled and reassembled reality. Folman’s technique is also at once impressionistic and expressionistic, both evoking the feeling of a mental space as a manifestation of his characters’ trauma and depicting the film as these characters remember it through their own subjectivities. Watching the cool, surreal blues and harsh, ungainly yellows of the film, Folman induces an almost Malick-like resonance for war as an experience of theater and personal disassociation, and out of body experience. We can never know the truth of it precisely because those who experience it can not either, or rather, because the truth of it is not some hermetic, purified guarantee separable from the subjectivities of experience and the representational removes of the media and the mind. Memory, in other words, is part of experience, and the ostensible mental remove of “out-of-body” is also a bodily experience all the same. Folman keeps us at a distance from war because, as his counter-intuitively, violently sedate film shows, war is so brutal it can’t but create its own form of disturbed quiet and distance. The soldiers, who speak to Folman with businesslike, casual candor and discuss the war like they were discussing a war they saw on television, almost feel like it never happened, like they dreamt it up.
It is thus that Folman’s film isn’t really about war as it exists in reality, but war as it exists in a nebulous conceptual space of the mind, which, of course, is a layer of reality. Abstract war, in other words, but also the bluntest, most concrete war of all in the way it lingers and haunts its participants in their dreams long after the fact. We learn that the greatest tragedy of war, or its greatest gift, may be that we can never fully know it, because it self-alienates, hiding its own identity from anyone involved. Folman doesn’t tell us much about the Lebanon War because his film is about war as an elemental construct of subjective experience and implicit memory. But in evoking the metronomic shards and almost nonchalant sangfroid of an experience that becomes so harsh that it doubles-back and becomes its own form of numbing, detached dehumanization, his film says everything we really need to know. More importantly, it reminds us that in attempting to machete through layers of fabrication to locate the undisturbed “it” of war, the intellectually and emotionally curious viewer must embroil themselves in thornier questions that problematize the “it” altogether.